Beautiful light today. Went running along the water’s edge.

fa704-karlmarxjennyKarl Marx‘s life has always fascinated me. When I hear his name, I imagine him restlessly working in the reading rooms of the British Museum, juggling his money problems and worrying about his family. While Marx is acknowledged as a titan of philosophical thought, it’s the relatable, everyday details that transfix me. Aware of this interest, my good friend Anindya Raychaudhuri has sent me an article by Benjamin Kunkel for The Nation.

Kunkel points out a fundamental problem for Marx biographers: “Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism […] warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes.” In an essay that comprises biography, commentary, and analysis, Kunkel traces a history of Marx biographies through the decades. I won’t be giving up my romantic, and perhaps sentimental, image of Marx anytime soon, but Kunkel’s piece is an important reminder of the political and ideological roles that biographical writing can play.

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Benjamin Kunkel (New Yorker) on the life and work of the Swiss writer

In “Jakob von Gunten,” the 1909 novel by the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser, the hero adopts the motto “To be small and to stay small.” The words apply just as well to Walser himself, whose life and work played out as a relentless diminuendo. The up-and-coming young novelist of the period before the First World War, capable of producing three novels in as many years, turned to shorter forms, and saw his audience and his income dwindle gradually through the war years and the nineteen-twenties. Once a fixture of smart Berlin society, Walser exchanged the world of salons for a series of tiny furnished rooms and, finally, in 1929, a mental institution. Even his handwriting diminished; he was able to squeeze a last novel—a short one, but still—onto just twenty-four sides of octavo-size paper. For years, some scholars believed that the script in which Walser composed this novel, “The Robber,” and many other later works was an uncrackable private code, and not until 1972, fifteen years after his death, did transcriptions from the so-called Bleistiftgebiet, or “pencil area,” begin to appear. The publication, starting in the eighties, of six volumes of painstakingly transcribed texts brought to light some of Walser’s most beautiful and haunting writing, and reinforced his posthumous reputation in German. The incredible shrinking writer is a major twentieth-century prose artist who, for all that the modern world seems to have passed him by, fulfills the modern criterion: he sounds like nobody else.
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From an article by Alex Ross (New Yorker)

ad2be-bremer-adorno-benjaminIn Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, “The Corrections,” a disgraced academic named Chip Lambert, who has abandoned Marxist theory in favor of screenwriting, goes to the Strand Bookstore, in downtown Manhattan, to sell off his library of dialectical tomes. The works of Theodor W. Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, and various others cost Chip nearly four thousand dollars to acquire; their resale value is sixty-five. “He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society,” Franzen writes. After several more book-selling expeditions, Chip enters a high-end grocery store and walks out with an overpriced filet of wild Norwegian salmon.

Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Their minatory titles, filled with dark talk of “Negative Dialectics” and “One-Dimensional Man,” were once proudly displayed on college-dorm shelves, as markers of seriousness; now they are probably consigned to taped-up boxes in garages, if they have not been discarded altogether. Once in a while, the present-day Web designer or business editor may open the books and see in the margins the excited queries of a younger self, next to pronouncements on the order of “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Walter Benjamin) or “The whole is the false” (Adorno). (more…)